- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

BELOIT, Wis. (AP) - When you walk into the Handrich home in Beloit, chances are you’ll be greeted by a young puppy.

While this could be said about many families in America, the difference is the puppy isn’t theirs and is being trained for a good cause.

For the last five-and-a-half years, Kurt and Kristy Handrich have been puppy trainers for OccuPaws Guide Dog Association.

The Madison-based nonprofit organization trains guide dogs and children’s visual assistance dogs for visually impaired residents in Wisconsin and surrounding states. The dogs are given to the residents free of charge.

Right now Kurt and Kristy are training Braille, a 15-week-old yellow lab.

“Our job as puppy raisers is to train them in basic obedience and house manners,” Kristy told the Beloit Daily News (https://bit.ly/1Cd7Vxe).

It’s clear Braille is still a puppy when you first get to their home. She’ll usually greet you by jumping up and looking for you to pet her, however, they are working with her and she’s made a lot of progress in the five weeks she has been at their home, they said.

“(OccuPaws) likes the labs because they are very food motivated,” Kurt said while holding a treat up for Braille, who immediately sits down and waits patiently. “That makes a big difference.”

OccuPaws, which recently received accreditation from the International Guide Dog Federation, uses labs, golden retrievers, standard poodles and German Shepherds for guide dogs.

Kurt and Kristy have trained 15 dogs over the time they’ve been with the organization. Kristy said she heard about the program when she was going to an obedience class with their dog Waldo in Madison several years ago.

“I saw a lot of other people at that class working with the OccuPaws dogs, and I was curious about it,” she said. “One day Kurt went on a mission trip with the youth, and I got on the phone and I said, ‘I’m just going on a walk with my guys.’ He said, ‘What guys?’” That was the beginning of how they got involved with OccuPaws.

Every week they head up to Madison for class with their trainer. Although it seems the classes are for training the dog, Kristy described the lessons as “training the trainer.”

“Each week can be a different challenge,” she said. “There could be a YouTube video challenge where you try to get your dog into the smallest box, or the trainer will set up a rally course. You’re trying to teach patience. It’s little things, but it makes a big difference.”

In addition to training every week, Braille will go with Kurt and Kristy to their jobs and everywhere they go out in the community. Kurt teaches at Aldrich Middle School and Kristy teaches at Gaston Elementary in Beloit.

“She’s probably the background of a lot of the students’ iPads at Aldrich,” Kurt said.

Right now they are working on getting Braille to remain still even while there is a lot of movement around her, and the schools provide that environment.

“You’re doing a lot of evaluation stuff to help figure out if they will work well as a guide,” Kurt said. “So you’re going a lot of places and socializing.”

Over the years the program has changed slightly. Kristy said when they started out, they would keep the dog for a year-and-a-half through harness training. However, now they usually rotate the dogs to different handlers throughout the process.

“They’re finding that rotating the dogs gives them more exposure to different situations,” Kristy said, adding dogs don’t generalize commands very well at first. “So if you teach them ‘sit, down, stay’ at home, but then go to the grocery store, it’s like they don’t know anything. So it’s all about getting them out in lots of environments.”

Not all dogs are meant to be guide dogs. In fact, Kurt said it can be something little such as constantly chasing rabbits that can disqualify the dog from the program. That was the case for one of their dogs a while back because he couldn’t be around other puppies.

“We could’ve kept him. But if we kept him, we couldn’t keep doing this,” he said. “That was really hard. Because it was either him or this, but he ended up going to a really good family.”

In a twist of fate, the two actually trained Braille’s mother who also ended up not continuing in the program, Kurt said.

“Braille was one of the first puppies born, and she’s been really great,” Kurt said. “So you never know what’s going to happen.”

There’s actually a waiting list for the dogs that don’t make it all the way through the training, Kristy said. However, some dogs are returned to the breeders.

Braille will stay with them for about six months before she goes to another home for harness training. You certainly get attached to the puppies, Kristy said, but it’s important to remember the cause behind the training.

“You take them in knowing they aren’t yours,” Kristy said. “When you see how they change a life, you know it’s worth it. Then they give you this cute 10-week-old puppy and you start all over again.”

They also get to still see the dogs as they grow up depending on where they are placed. Kurt remembers one of the dogs they trained named Linus, who went to an artist who lost her sight.

They were at an OccuPaws event when the artist’s sister-in-law came up to them to thank them. Prior to getting Linus, the woman was using a cane to get around the community.

“She said her sister-in-law looked 10 years younger,” Kurt said. “When she had a cane no one would come up to her because it creates that barrier. With the dog everyone came up to her. So she felt like she was part of the community again. The other thing is with the dog you also have a friend. So it’s not just about getting places. When you see that you feel like you’ve made a difference.”

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Information from: Beloit Daily News, https://www.beloitdailynews.com

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